(Crossposted from The Field.)
When it comes to Nate Silver's analysis of the numbers of politics, if the gods ever made a more astute human they must have done it in an age when that person had far less data available at his fingertips. I'm usually reduced to saying "me too" when Silver speaks, but today I think he's offered a counsel that is more human than it is divinely providenced...
Nate finds "lessons for Obama" in "declining approval ratings" and notes: "Whereas Obama had been averaging approval ratings of about 70 percent in the immediate aftermath of his inauguration, his approval ratings have since declined by approximately 6 points, with his disapproval scores increasing by about the same margin."
Kos, citing the Research 2000 tracking poll he commissions, notes that "everybody lost" some popularity this week, and not just the President: the House, the Senate, their Democrats, their Republicans, and the leaders of both chambers became less popular, too.
Obama lost a little bit more because, in my view, last week's 75 percent favorable to 22 percent negative rating was artificially high. (Even now at 69 to 26, the President enjoys a staggering level of popularity at +43 percent, but I think we have to be realistic and expect it will not remain as high as time goes on, and should not freak out or try to find too much evidence when it does other than the simple fact that "governing is ugly.")
DKos front-pager DemFromCT has the more plausible analysis. "you could argue there's no drop at all, just the end of an inaugural bounce."
There it is. The inaugural bounce was to be expected. Just as Silver, last August, forecasted that presidential candidate John McCain would get an bounce in poll numbers from the Republican National Convention - 538 even tracked convention bounces from prior years to predict how high it could go and how many days it would likely last, an analysis that proved prescient - unless and until Nate or somebody can offer up a differing analysis of past "inaugural bounces" for Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II, I don't think much of anything can be read into this week's slight descent in Obama's faves-to-negs.
Also helpful would be to track the weeks and months of presidential popularity after previous inaugurations in the age of polling - perhaps laying them over each other on a chart graph to get a reasonable sense of where Obama's fave-to-neg ratings will likely go (as they will certainly narrow over time) - so that observers can have reasonable expectations and won't "over analyze" the natural forces of gravity on public opinion by assigning the blame self-servingly to specific events.
Otherwise, we're in for a spring season of chirping by the "Obama must do what I say" commentators repeating, like scratched LPs on a turntable, that his popularity came down to earth because he didn't do what they recommended. Those "I told you so" prounouncements will come identically from the National Review, Rush Limbaugh and right-wing commentators as it will from the panic room nostalgists in the Netroots: It will be like a Mad Libs quiz where each will fill in different nouns but will use the same verbs, i.e.: "Obama's favorability fell because he did _______________ and because he did not do __________________." In many cases the blanks filled in will make exact opposite points. Reality-based observers will know that neither will be correct.
Nate offers three points of analysis, the first two that I generally concur with: that Congressional Republicans are desperate with "nothing to lose" and therefore should be dealt with much like an animal control team would handle a rabid raccoon (thick gloves and long sticks!), and also that Obama shouldn't leave the heavy lifting to unpopular Congressional Democrats.
I don't concur with his third point, though: that "bipartisanship" somehow hasn't worked for Obama and his agenda.
I'm not sure that Silver fully believes his third counsel because he then sharpens the pencil and finds a different point: "the public seems to be seeking strong leadership from Obama; they don't want him to be deferential to either Congressional Democrats or Congressional Republicans." I agree with that, but point out that it has nothing to do with partisanship vs. bipartisanship. More to the pencil point, it recommends a bipartisan "tough love" strategy to deal with both parties in Congress. And that requires bipartisan carrots as well as bipartisan sticks.
The tough love strategy won't solve anything for those nostalgic for the political dysfunctions of the last 16 years, or who seek symbolic justice in Obama doing to Republicans what Bush did to Democrats (ignoring that what Bush did to Democrats was to inadvertently position them for the 2006 and 2008 electoral turnabouts in which they took back all three houses: House, Senate and White, and a shot at a possible generation of dominance).
Bipartisanship isn't just unicorns and kisses. It can be flowers, yes... but it can also be whips and chains: the point is to apply the dominatrix tools in measured parity to Congressional Republicans and to Congressional Democrats. If so, the beatings would still be doled out on a bipartisan basis.
I think when many people argue against "bipartisanship" what they're really saying is they want more blood on the floor. Well, they're going to get that, but they may see it likewise apply to Democrats at the US Capitol, whose dysfunctions and power trips are legion and, if the ship of State were left only in their hands, they'd make a big ol' mess of things, too.
Had Obama come out swinging at Republicans - as some have recommended - from Day One, his favorable-to-negative numbers would have still sagged at least as much, likely more so, as the inaugural bounce subsided. There would have been a greater chance that he would not have been able to bring three Republican senators - Specter, Snowe and Collins - along on the Stimulus, which is absolutely necessary to make the sixty vote cloture threshold.
More consequentially for the long run, he would have lost the moral authority to do what the next few days will bring: the jump-start of Organizing for America (300 of 3,200 house meetings nationwide begin today), a Monday trip to "fire up" the crowds in Indiana, a Tuesday visit to make public opinion "ready to go" in Florida (and a national media narrative set through both events), all leading up to Tuesday's Senate vote on the Stimulus Bill and the subsequent House-Senate conference committee machinations. What the Obama camp knows - it proved this time and time again in 2008 - is that to exercise maximum force at the moment of decision means taking care to not peak too soon.
So if you attend a house meeting today or in the days to come, please do report back, in the comments section of The Field, and share with us what you saw, heard and learned. Organizing for America is apparently confident in the attendance (many of the meetings listed on its website are already filled to capacity via reservations and can't shoehorn more organizers in), so confident that it's now made public the 13-minute video that will be watched as part of those house meetings, narrated by DNC chair Tim Kaine answering the base's questions about the Stimulus Bill:
What we'll witness in the next four days is the first 2009 roll out of the organizational muscle. And if anybody thinks that the timing of this was not plotted weeks ago, they haven't learned much from the experience of 2008. I'm looking forward to looking at, learning and studying how it is done all over again, this time in the context of how grassroots organizing can be applied in an epoch of governance.